It's been fashionable in some corners of punditryville to form a revenge narrative around the Spurs, and to paint them as a team that's labored all season long under a crazed, fevered, obsessive quest for revenge against the hated Miami Heat, who got the better of them in the ill-fated Finals. It's easy to pretend that they've had the same rallying cry all season long, the same unified cause to right the wrongs of Game 6.
It's also absolute fiction.
If that was how the Spurs operated, singularly fixated on an all-consuming goal that could only be achieved in June, there's no way they would've earned the home court advantage necessary to obtain it. They'd have burned themselves out by January, done in by the fatigue to their stars thanks to all the minutes Pop would've played them and unable to keep up the breakneck pace. They'd have skipped steps and missed the forest for the trees.
In short, they'd have been the Pacers.
Indiana has been the team far more vocal about their plans to usurp the Heat and for the first half of the season they looked very capable of doing just that. They share with the Spurs the sting of losing a seven game series to the two-time champions last spring, but of course their cross to bear came not in Game 6 but rather the opening game, where a surprising road victory seemed well in their mitts before coach Frank Vogel foolishly removed defensive giant Roy Hibbert from the proceedings up one with a few seconds left amid concerns that the lumbering Goliath wouldn't have the necessary footspeed to contest a Chris Bosh jumper at the buzzer.
What happened instead, as you'll recall was this:
James wrong-footed Paul George on the catch and had a wide open lane in front of him, with no Hibbert there to contest.
At the time I rationalized Vogel's blunder by theorizing that at least some good would come from it. Surely other coaches would heed the lesson about taking out their best defensive big in a late-game situation against Miami, right?
Anyway, even though the Pacers cratered in almost historic fashion for the last two months of the season, they still found themselves with the top seed in the conference when it was all said and done, even with a relatively modest 56-26 record. Remember, once upon a time these guys were 31-7.
The playoffs have done little to restore anyone's faith in the Pacers, as they needed the full seven games to get past a bad Hawks team missing their best player and six more to overcome the Wizards, including a craptastic home blowout loss in Game 5 in which they were out-rebounded 62-23.
Hibbert turned into a national punchline, with play so listless and dismal that I'd all but assumed that some undisclosed injury had to be the reason. All-Stars don't just turn in 0-point, 0-rebound games now and then. It just doesn't happen. Hibbert pulled it off twice in a span of three playoff games, and had a couple other performances where he managed just four points, and he had a pair of two-rebound games as well. For the playoffs he's averaging 5.3 points and 3.7 boards in 21.7 minutes, while shooting 37.2 percent.
He's seven-feet-bloody-two-inches tall.
Hibbert did rally (how could he get worse?) somewhat of late, including a 28-point showing in Game 2 against the Wizards, but overall he looks nothing like the man who dominated the Heat the last two springs. In fact, in the last meeting between these teams in April 11 at Miami he scored five points and pulled down one rebound in 34 minutes, with the Heat winning easily. Simply too much has happened for any reasonable person to have any faith in him.
The Pacers bench has been similarly awful. The Evan Turner trade has been a disaster, there's no other way to spin it. True, it's not like Danny Granger did anything for the Clippers, but at least he was liked by his teammates. Luis Scola's jumper was mostly M.I.A. and his defense has been atrocious, to the point where he's almost unplayable. Ian Mahinmi carries his usual limitations and C.J. Watson's only asset is to make George Hill look credible as a starter by comparison. Their reserves are so poor that the huddled masses cried out for Chris Copeland for salvation. Chris Copeland!
As Spurs fans we've seen firsthand how much an unplayable bench can influence an outcome as the difference in the quality of the reserves was the biggest factor in their gentlemen's sweep over the Trail Blazers. Miami's bench isn't loaded by any means, but at least they're stocked with vets who have clutch reputations and who can hurt you for a moment here and there. You start with Ray Allen of course, but there's also Shane Battier, Chris Andersen, Rashard Lewis, Norris Cole, and even James Jones and Michael Beasley. You'd trust just about all of those guys to come up big before anyone on the Pacers bench, would you not? Particularly with James buying them all kinds of room.
Indiana's ballyhooed starters, meanwhile, have hardly set the world on fire. Paul George was fantastic in round one, perhaps the only reason they survived that potential humiliation, but he only had one good game in six against Washington, with Trevor Ariza hounding him something awful. Lance Stephenson hasn't broken out at all, despite having had ample opportunity to do so. He looks very league-average-starter these playoffs. Hill has been, of course, something less than that altogether. How many guesses would it have taken to figure out that David West has been the team's leading assist-man (4.4!) this postseason?
To be fair, the Pacers have done two things pretty well in the playoffs. They're leading everyone in defensive efficiency and they're winning on the road, 5-1 away so far, compared to 3-4 at home. In those respects, Pop would like them quite a bit. What he wouldn't like is their non-bench, their terrible offensive spacing, their stagnant offense and their maddening inconsistency. There is just no way of knowing which Pacers team you're going to get on any given night. Forget the execution, even their effort fluctuates wildly from man to man and game to game.
The Heat didn't look invincible at all against Brooklyn and there remains a sizable gap between their big three and their fourth-best guy (I can't even bring myself to guess at who that would even be). Both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are nowhere close to what they once were. More or less, these are the LeBron Cavs, whether he wants to admit it or not. He's just bigger, stronger, faster and better than everyone else, and so much more supremely confident than the guy we saw in those awful wine-colored jerseys. He just does whatever the team needs down the stretch on both ends of the court and never seems to tire while doing it.
The Pacers have pointed to this rematch all season long as their singular goal. By hook or by crook, they've gotten it, and on their terms, since a potential Game 7 will be played on their home court, as worthless as it appears to be. While I would love to be wrong, I can't in good conscience pick them here. I don't trust Hibbert, and certainly don't trust Hill, I really don't have any faith in their bench and in the end there's still James. All I can hope is that Indy will make him work for it.
Miami in six.